In France, Nothing Says ‘Happy New Year’ Like a Burning Car

France's leftist government ends previous blackout on nationwide New Year's Eve car burning by revealing figures confirming the spread of France's distinctive tradition of auto arson as protest

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Jean-Marc Loos / Reuters

A car burns after being torched during New Year celebrations in the Strasbourg district of Neuhof, France, on Jan. 1, 2013

Burn out the old year; torch in the new. France celebrated the onset of 2013 in its uniquely pyromaniac fashion, with officials reporting that 1,193 cars were torched overnight from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 — 209 of them in the Paris area alone. Those figures marked a 4% increase over the 1,147 autos set ablaze on the same night in 2009 — the last year for which French officials released figures on the nation’s peculiar New Year rite.

The mere fact the government of Socialist President François Hollande resumed publication of the burnt-car toll also caused sparks to fly. Conservative opponents claimed that revealing the information only poured gas on the New Year’s fires by inspiring copycat arsonists, while leftists countered that they were simply informing the public about a reality hidden by the previous government of the right. But as the debate raged over whether to publicize the nation’s flaming-auto fetish, some French observers sought explanations for the singularly antisocial custom of car toasting.

(MORE: France’s New Year’s Tradition: Car Burning)

“Why are cars burned on Dec. 31?” asked French Web news site Mediapart.

“Burning Cars: A ‘Tradition’ That Remains Strong,” lamented a Jan. 2 headline in the daily Le Figaro.

More amazing, still, is the fact that the New Year’s Eve auto roast is only part of the story. In announcing the New Year’s Eve tally on Jan. 2, Interior Minister Manuel Valls also revealed that figures provided by fire, police and insurance officials indicate that somewhere between 42,000 and 60,000 automobiles are intentionally torched in France every year. The majority of those go up in smoke in or near the disadvantaged suburban housing projects located outside most French cities. Indeed, the rest of the world first took notice of France’s distinctive car-burning penchant during the three weeks of nationwide rioting in French housing projects in 2005, when 8,810 automobiles were incinerated by enraged youths. Yet, despite that riot-driven surge of car arson, year-end figures of around 43,000 for 2005 came in at around normal levels. Normal, that is, for flame-happy France.

(MORE: Why Paris Is Burning)

When the conservative government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy began withholding New Year’s car-arson figures in 2010, officials said the move was designed to suppress copycat attacks, noting that youths in rival housing projects across France had begun competing over which town could produced the most charred autos. Conservatives accused Valls of egging on the vandals through his return to transparency.

“[It's not] the sharpest of our fellow citizens who burn cars, nor the local little Einstein,” former Sarkozy Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told Europe 1 radio Jan. 3, mocking Valls’ decision to reverse the blackout policy. “Did it work? Yes it worked, because the annual numbers of burned cars decreased.”

Both Hortefeux’s claim and the reasoning behind it are contested by leftists and many independent researchers alike. Some have dismissed his charge against Valls as specious, while others have repeated previously aired suspicions that Sarkozy governments used creative accounting to artificially reduce crime rates on their watch. Hortefeux’s explanation also appears to considerably oversimplify a longstanding and steadily escalating French tradition of automotive pyromania — a trend that has increased no matter how governments have communicated on it.

(MORE: Why a Cop Is France’s Favorite Politician)

According to sociologists and delinquency experts, car burning as a ritualistic expression of protest began in disadvantaged areas of northeastern France in the 1980s, before gradually spreading to project communities elsewhere. Initially, scholars say, torching autos was seen as a spectacular form of destruction that pulled the attention of news media and authorities to the dismal economic and social conditions in the perpetrators’ neighborhoods. Others offer more subjective and artistic explanations for the phenomenon, seeing it as a perverse form of protest over the isolation of project areas with little or no link via public transportation to more affluent city centers or expressing a contradiction between individualism and social solidarity.

Then, there’s the pecuniary motivation. French insurance experts and justice officials estimate that around 20% of all annual car arson is financially motivated fraud conducted by — or with the accord of — owners themselves. The perpetrators of random auto burning often, in fact, dismiss ethical questions about scorching a neighborhood car with rationalizations that insured victims will be compensated for their loss. The average payout on an automobile protected by fire insurance is around $6,500 — no mean sum in areas where unemployment exceeds 25%, and youth joblessness is closer to 50%.

Whatever the motives, increasingly demoralized advocates for improving conditions in the projects warn that one day delinquent arsonists will question the protest strategy of torching what few objects of value exist in their disadvantaged midst, and instead start targeting autos in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods where such destruction will really gain attention. It’s only when that happens, some activists fear, that the sparks in France will really start to fly.

MORE: The Problem of Clichy: After 2005 Riots, France’s Suburbs Are Still Miserable

18 comments
SteveBloomberg
SteveBloomberg

The problem is that you have groups who aren't adapted with the behavioural traits to do well in modern France. As a result they are unemployed and frustrated. The French government were negligent to allow people in who would not be likely to assimilate.

patriavolk
patriavolk

Wow, no mention of the fact that many of the 'youths' are African in origin.


This problem would be considerably smaller if France had not taken in so many immigrants from low IQ nations. The immigrant population live in crummy communities because they have few talents, no work ethic. And government gives them free stuff. And sadly, they are assimilating into American rap trash culture than to French national culture. 

AndrewPhillips
AndrewPhillips

Another place in France, this neighbourhood mentioned, that I wouldn't visit. We have problems here too, but outside of arson like this, its hockey hooligans. What is wrong with these people?

chard69
chard69

Just wait till this become an international ritual. Why, it might even be stealthily promoted by carmakers as a way to boost sales. (I see a parallel with the antivirus software industry.) After a splash of Ferraris torchings, we should see a spike in Ferrari sales, right? Just another form of marketing...

DavidClaudeWarlick
DavidClaudeWarlick

I probably had the worst car at Fort Bragg, NC.  It still got vandalized.  Vandals make no sense of which owners they target, or even why they go after cars.

scott.the.scribe1
scott.the.scribe1

All is fine wherever those at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy benefit from their skimming the wealth the masses of commoners create by their labors.


The wealthy and powerful can protect their possessions with their massive wealth amounts making it easy to do.


The despised commoner scum? Sorry... you just have to deal with the problems caused by extreme socio-economic inequality.


And.. how is that multi-culturalism stuff working out for you?


The USA elites and their lackeys are keeping their commoners in place with the propaganda about "diversity is our strength."


Hah.  The future immense internal troubles awaiting the USA will prove that diversity with unifying bonds cast aside merely assists the ruling elites in their schemes and scams.


Yes, it IS clas warfare.


"One reason companies are so profitable is that they're paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP. And that, in turn, is one reason the economy is so weak: Those "wages" are other companies' revenue.

In short, our current system and philosophy is creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs." Blodget


"There has been class warfare going on," Buffett, 81, said in a Sept. 30 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. It's just that my class is winning. And my class isn't just winning, I mean we're killing them."


"While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks," Buffett wrote in a Sunday New York Times Op-ed.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

How dare you say that about France.  In France, the men are men ... and the sheep are afraid.

JeanPailler
JeanPailler

@ulyssepariser @TIME quand on connaît Time... grand torchon américain conservateur et anti-européen c'est plutôt une moquerie honorable!

Richard_Weil
Richard_Weil

@v_kalifa Exception française , so french so different !

Richard_Weil
Richard_Weil

@v_kalifa Exception culturelle française, so french so different !!

chokorote
chokorote

@TIME many poeple burn they own cars to have the money from the insurance (1/3 of all cars), & a way to have fun in the hood.

dibe92
dibe92

Houps welcome RT @TIME In France, nothing says 'Happy New Year' like a burning car | http://t.co/JnO1NLS7 (via @TIMEWorld)

Kokopetiyot
Kokopetiyot

@JeanPailler @ulyssepariser @time ce n'est pas un grand torchon. Ça vaut nos nouvel obs, express, point, fig mag.